January 17, 2018
By Nick Ducassi
In 2016, Rachel Xiaowen Song graduated from Carnegie Mellon University’s Masters of Entertainment Industry Management (MEIM) program. One year later, she signed on to produce for two feature films, “A Kid Like Jake,” starring Jim Parsons (CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory”), and “Nancy,” starring Ann Dowd (Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”). This month (Jan. 18-28) both are premiering at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, where Song is hoping to sell the film’s distribution rights to major Hollywood players.
This year’s Sundance festival is not Song’s first. Throughout the two-year program, MEIM students attend several prominent film festivals, including Cannes, Sundance and the South by Southwest Film, Interactive and Music Festival.
This year’s festival marks the 10th year that the MEIM program has brought its students to Sundance. MEIM is a joint program with CMU’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy and the College of Fine Arts.
“The trip highlights the importance of the deals that are being made daily at the festival,” said MEIM Director Dan Green. “It’s especially gratifying to go to the festival and have faculty, alumni or current students involved with one of the films being screened.”
At the 2017 Sundance festival, students attended the screening of “Crown Heights,” a film executive produced by MEIM faculty member Jonathan Baker, which went on to win the Sundance Audience Award for Best Dramatic Feature. Additionally, Carnegie Mellon School of Drama alumna Chante Adams took home the Sundance Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Performance for her work in the film “Roxanne Roxanne.”
Song said attending Sundance during her final MEIM semester was inspirational.
“Sundance was the first real filmmaker-driven festival I’d been to, and going there really helped shaped my career path,” she said. “Since I was a child, I’ve always loved watching films … but after Sundance, I knew I wanted to pursue making them. I knew I wanted to be a producer.”
Prior to attending Sundance, Song had worked primarily in film financing, with tenures at the international sales agency IM Global and production company Kylin Pictures (“Hacksaw Ridge”). In 2015, Song co-founded the film financing company Vantage Entertainment. As its head of business, she brokered deals between U.S based productions and Chinese-based financiers, including the film “Billionaire Boys Club,” starring Ansel Elgort (“Baby Driver”).
Hoping to work more closely with directors and writers, she left Vantage to found the production company XS Media in early 2017. Now, she’s “making a bigger difference than just putting together $300 million for a slate financing deal,” Song said. XS is focused on “making something for the audience and creating a spontaneous, genuine voice for them. Maybe you’ll change their lives.”
“A Kid Like Jake” and “Nancy” are XS Media’s first two films, and “the only two films I did this year,” Song said. “I feel incredibly lucky.”
“The mission for XS is to make filmmaker driven projects,” Song said. “To spend the energy and capital on development and to nurture younger talent — especially writers and directors, for projects with award potential and cross-platform profitability.”
Song, who was born and raised in China and is bilingual, said XS projects include English and Chinese-language films and television shows. Joining her at XS is MEIM alumna Julie Zhang, who serves as director of development.
“We’re both from China,” Song said. “We’re developing some Chinese language features with some up-and-coming Chinese directors and writers.” One of the features is the Chinese-language feature film “YOYO.” Song said she hopes to bring her films to Chinese theaters.
“The cinephile audience in China is growing,” Song said. “They’re hungry for content.”
XS English-language feature films include “The Zero,” about a young boy who contracts a mysterious fatal virus, which Song is producing with 2012 MEIM alumnus Jonny Paterson.
“I met Rachel through the MEIM program,” Paterson said. “Her drive and passion to be a producer was something that struck me from the first time we met. She was inquisitive yet knowledgeable, and very passionate. She’s done a remarkable job in a short period of time to have two films at one of the world’s most important film festivals … I’m excited about what her future holds and think the sky is the limit for her as a film producer.”
“A Kid Like Jake”
“A Kid Like Jake” follows a pair of young parents, played by Parsons and Claire Danes (Showtime’s “Homeland”) as they raise their transgender 4-year-old child in New York City.
“I loved the script immediately,” Song said. “It’s such a strong and original story. I was the first financier on-board.” Directed by transgender director Silas Howard (“Transparent,” “This Is Us”), “Jake” also stars Octavia Spencer (Academy Award winner for “The Butler”), and Priyanka Chopra (ABC’s “Quantico”).
Even though the film’s budget is “small,” said Song — under $5 million — “the stars are huge.” Parson’s company “That’s Wonderful Productions” purchased the film rights after watching its original incarnation as a play at New York City’s Lincoln Center Theater in 2013. The film is Parson’s first leading role in a feature film, following a supporting role in 2017 Best Picture nominee “Hidden Figures.”
“‘A Kid Like Jake’ is the first English language film that I produced and was extensively involved in,” Song said.
“A Kid Like Jake” will premiere out of competition in the Premieres category, typically reserved for bigger budget films. Though Song and her fellow producers will seek to sell the distribution rights to “A Kid Like Jake” at Sundance, Song has already secured its Chinese distribution rights.
“Nancy” stars Andrea Riseborough (“Birdman”), Steve Buscemi (HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”), Ann Dowd (Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”) and John Leguizamo. It will compete for Sundance’s top honors in the U.S. Dramatic competition. The film follows a woman who grows to believe she was kidnapped as a child and ventures to learn the truth. Nancy, produced in part by female-driven film fund Gamechanger Films, sported an all-female production and creative team.
“When I found out that every single executive producer on Nancy was female, I thought it was important that I get on board,” Song said. “I had no idea it would get into the US Dramatic Competition.” Song said she has already sat down with several interested distributors.